Government refuses to accept austerity measures are breach of human rights

Exclusive: In a letter to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Justice Minister Oliver Weald rejects UN concerns that welfare reform is worsening inequality in the UK

Caroline Mortimer
Wednesday 08 February 2017 20:09 GMT
Protesters against austerity outside the Bank of England in 2015
Protesters against austerity outside the Bank of England in 2015

The Government has been accused of kicking UN concerns about its austerity policy “into the long grass” after it refused to accept the findings of a report that concluded its welfare reforms were a breach of human rights.

A letter from the Ministry of Justice to the head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), seen by The Independent, rejected the findings of a report by the UN’s Committee for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which expressed “serious concerns” about Government policy. Ministers have refused to say what changes they plan to make in response to the criticisms.

The UNCESCR report, published in June 2016, said the regressive nature of welfare and justice reforms such as universal credit and the “bedroom tax” meant government policy was worsening inequality in the UK and that changes to the benefits system disproportionately affect women, young people, ethnic minorities and disabled people.

It also expressed concerns about cuts to the legal aid budget, which has lead to an increase in people representing themselves in court, and a Conservative plan to scrap the 1998 Human Rights Act in favour of a British Bill of Rights.

With its current policy, the UN committee concluded, the UK was in violation of the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which it ratified in 1976.

The covenant guarantees labour rights, the right to education, the right to health and the right to an acceptable standard of living.

Justice Minister Oliver Heald told the EHRC: “I am confident that the UK continues to comply with its obligations.” But he refused to say whether the government was planning to implement any of the changes recommended by the UN before it is obliged to report to them in June 2021.

The EHRC chair, David Isaac, told The Independent: “We are disappointed by the government’s response to the points we raised. They have failed to address many of our concerns, including on social security and working conditions, and seem to want to kick this into the long grass by not responding until 2020.

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“The government must show it is serious in addressing these issues and set out what action it will take to meet the recommendations.”

Virginia Bras Gomes, a member of the UNCESC, echoed Mr Isaac concerns and said she hoped that this was not the final position of the UK government.

She told The Independent the committee was in the process of developing follow-up procedures, which would see what states were doing, if anything, to implement their recommendations.

She said: “Whenever we contact a national government we want to be able to ask states within a certain time, perhaps two years after the final recommendations, to tell us at least parts of what they are doing in the short term,” she said.

“Of course the Committee understands the difficulties of implementing policy changes, we do not live in an ideal world – we know that. It is not a matter of asking states if they have done something during the five-year periods between reports, but it is have they done enough.”

She said the committee wanted states to implement a nationwide “Human Rights Action Plan” where, among many things, they will explain what steps they are taking to educate people about the importance of human rights.

Highlighting evidence from a programme to educate children from underprivileged backgrounds in her native Portugal, she said children were very capable of understanding that human rights were about “everyday life” rather than high-minded political or social issues.

She said: “Part of the duty of the committee is to ask the government if they have a human rights action plan or whether they are teaching human rights in schools because these values don’t just come to you by divine intervention, you have to be brought up in that tradition.

“It is not only the political freedoms that people think of – the freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of movement, freedom of expression.

“Economic and social rights are as much a part of human rights as civil and political rights. And the right to social welfare, the right to social insurance are economic and social rights.”

Ms Bras Gomes warned that in the rush for hard Brexit and restrictions on immigration, UK politicians could not forget that, although the UK will no longer be bound by European rules on human rights, they will still be answerable to the UN.

But Mr Weald said the Government had no intention of introducing a human rights action plan, preferring instead to “drive forward work in specific areas”, such as its work on modern slavery.

A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Justice said: "The UK Government is fully engaged with the periodic reporting process to the United Nations under the seven UN human rights treaties that the UK has ratified.

"We also engage with civil society and our National Human Rights Institutions in preparing our reports.

"We have complied, and we will continue to comply, with the various reporting obligations including under the ICESCR and the ICCPR."

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